In a female-dominated profession there is a tendency for women to talk to women about children, but fathers, or a father figure, can provide valuable input when given the right support. Natalie Valios reports
A baby’s death could have been prevented had it been known that the father abused two other children, a serious case review in Kent concluded in March.
“Brooke” died at the hands of her father less than two months after she had been born.
The problem of children’s services failing to think about fathers or other males in a child’s life is not new, but nor does it seem to be an improving situation.
An analysis of London SCRs between April 2006 and September 2009 found: “There were significant gaps in the case files and the subsequent SCRs, including information about fathers and male household visitors and even the children themselves.”
The government has attempted to rectify the situation with the Think Fathers campaign and the Healthy Child Programme, both of which aim to ensure that contact with the family routinely involves and supports fathers and father figures.
However, according to Fathers Matter, a Family Rights Group project exploring the barriers encountered by fathers whose children are involved with social services, basic information such as a father’s contact details and legal status in relation to their child is still often missing from case files.
The group has also found there is a greater involvement of fathers in child protection investigations (as both potential risks and protectors) than in initial and core assessments.
Postitive and negative
Roger Olley, a consultant working with Children North East Fathers Plus, points out that this latter finding shows that social workers forget that men in a child’s life can have both a positive and a negative impact.
“If they are a positive influence then they are a powerful ally in a social worker’s objectives. If they have a negative effect we need to be working with them or getting to a place where they don’t have that effect. But we can’t ignore them. We are failing children if we do that.”
Adrienne Burgess, research director at the Fatherhood Institute, agrees: “They are a resource in a child’s life that a social worker needs to know about. A father or father figure who is positive not only has value in his own right but is a conduit to another network of support among family and friends that is often overlooked.”
Often there is a father who could be a resource but needs a lot of support, she adds. “If you look at Baby Peter, the biological father was young, it was his first child. He noticed the bruises, but the mother told him that [young children] fall all the time.
“If someone had been working with him to support him he may have mentioned the bruises. There would have been someone he could turn to, to see how he was doing, which in turn would have been [another] way of seeing how the baby was doing.”
There are plenty of barriers seemingly preventing social workers from asking the right questions, not least the fact that it is a female-dominated profession and there is an engrained habit of talking to women about children. Social workers interviewed for the Fathers Matter project listed insufficient time when carrying out assessments; assumptions about the father’s lack of interest; and feeling more comfortable talking to women.
Burgess points out that extensive evidence shows the needs of men in families are almost never assessed.
“When their behaviour is problematic referrals to services able to help them be better fathers or partners are rare. The needs and circumstances of ethnic minority fathers are particularly poorly understood.”
Training should be seen as a safeguarding priority, says Burgess. “It’s a whole service approach – for example making sure that the common assessment framework forms are set up to receive names – some don’t have enough space to list the men in children’s lives. It’s also training social workers to get those names and if they don’t, asking why and deciding how they can get them, so that it becomes routine.”
If a woman doesn’t want to name the father it might mean she’s frightened of him, or she could be hiding the names of men in her life for child protection or benefits reasons, but these are all things that a social worker needs to know, adds Burgess.
She points out that only 2% of women live with a man who is not the biological father at the time of birth “and that’s a marker of huge risk for children”.
If basic details aren’t recorded, social workers start from a premise that fathers or father figures are either not there or not involved. At best this is a missed opportunity for positive outcomes for the child and at worst, it’s just plain dangerous, she points out.
● Think about all male figures in a child’s life: This can include fathers (whether living with their child or not), stepfathers; mothers’ boyfriends; adoptive and foster fathers; grandfathers and any others who play a significant role in a child’s life.
● Normalise inclusion: Fathers rarely pro-actively engage with services. In any dealings with a family, be clear that you need to meet the father or any father figures as well. If they are not present try to contact them directly.
● Tailor physical settings: Ensure the decor, displays and promotional material visibly demonstrate that men belong. Think of ways these settings can be used to inspire men to become more involved.
● Tailor communication: All forms, flyers, newsletters and communication with families should refer to “mothers and fathers” rather than “parents”, otherwise fathers may assume they are really aimed at mothers.
● Obtain specialised training: Specific training can help identify when unthinking actions are excluding men.
● Keep up to date: Increasing numbers of studies are now looking at the impact of fathers (both negative and positive) on children’s health and social care outcomes.
Source: Community Care Inform guide “Father inclusive practice”
In 2008, Blackburn with Darwen Council decided a cultural shift was needed to improve how it worked with men and commissioned Fathers Plus to work on a two-year initiative. Using funding from Think Family, a cross-departmental government programme, it set up training sessions for all services that have an input with children, starting with the 13 Sure Start children’s centres.
Tracy Collins, early years development manager, says: “A housing officer said it had made him think about a father who had separated from his partner and children. The man would usually be offered a one-bedroom flat and he had never given any thought to children staying at weekends. After the training they examined their policies. This is what we want people to think about – the whole family.”
Every children’s centre now has a fathers champion who encourages staff to look at father-friendly services, activities and literature. A Lads that are Dads course has started for 15- to 20-year-olds.
Referrals are from social work teams, Connexions, early years, Camhs and housing, which shows that the message is getting through. “If [staff] see the importance of working with fathers, then they will start asking the right questions,” says Collins.
This article is published in the 13 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Don’t ignore the father
Community Care Inform recently commissioned the Fatherhood Institute to deliver a large piece of work on father-inclusive practice.
This offer ends on 27 May 2010